Leaving PhD, 8X engineer becomes a cryptographic attack expert

Nguyen Thoi Minh Quan (SN 1983) is known as an expert in the field of application cryptographic attacks. He once received a prize of $ 39,300 for finding a security bug in the Ethereum v2 (version 2) cryptocurrency.

In addition, he has had 2 recognized articles at Black Hat Conference – the world’s leading computer security conference.

Before making such strides, Minh Quan said, he used to “frustrate” to find a way for himself – whether he had studied for a doctorate in the US or even had 5 years of work experience. years at Google.

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0.1 point changes the whole learning journey

Nguyen Thoi Minh Quan is a former student majoring in Mathematics of the High School for the Gifted, an alumnus of the Department of Mathematics and Information Technology of the University of Natural Sciences (Vietnam National University, Ho Chi Minh City).

Passionate about learning Math from a very early age, but Quan admits that he has no predestined relationship with competitions. When he entered university, his only wish was to study abroad.

At that time, he said, he himself knew about many scholarships to study in the US, Japan or Singapore. But most of them require a very high level of English, while he himself is poor in foreign languages.

“At that time, English was my biggest obstacle. If you want to go to Japan, the US or Singapore without English, you cannot pass the first round. At that time, only scholarships in Russia allowed students to study Russian after entering the school. Although going to Russia will mean that I have to switch to Information Technology Engineering, but with no other choice, I accept to go abroad.”

Having determined the goal, Quan is determined to achieve the highest academic average score possible in order to be selected by the school.

“I remember I worked hard, even on subjects that weren’t too interesting, and always told myself ‘if you don’t understand, learn by heart’.

Thanks to that, at the end of the first semester, Quan’s score was in the “top” of the faculty. Only one subject made him unsatisfied. So, he decided to apply for a re-examination, after which the average score increased by 0.1.

At that time, he himself did not expect that 0.1 point later would affect his future so much.

“A friend of the Math – Believe faculty with me, only 0.1 point behind me, was sent to study in the harsh and cold Siberia. Actually, my friend and I had the same score at first, but I was raised by 0.1 points through the review. Therefore, fortunately, I was assigned to study at Moscow State University (MGU). Thanks to that, I understood that sometimes we just have to fight to the best of our ability, because no one knows what the future will be like.”

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Nguyen Thoi Minh Quan working day at Google.

Eat instant noodles to study with “world masters”

Although he was very excited about studying abroad, Minh Quan could not believe that his time studying in Russia would be so difficult.

At that time, international students were often given scholarships a few months late, and Quan witnessed many international students gradually lose hope and let go because their lives were so miserable.

Quan himself often encounters “long-term hunger”, the story of having to eat instant noodles happens as usual.

But at that time, the Vietnamese student decided not to work part-time because he thought that, in a talented environment like Moscow State University, this was the best opportunity to focus on developing his future. .

Quan is determined to become an expert in the field of information technology and to be good at algorithms because that is the backbone of the industry.

Therefore, during his time studying abroad in Russia, Quan also regularly participated in programming-related competitions. However, he never achieved a high rank due to always having to deal with too strong opponents.

“I found myself making very slow progress and not getting much rank despite taking exams and practicing a lot. My competitors were all students from the Lomonosov School, who went on to become world champions in programming. The feeling that I go to the exam every year but come back empty-handed makes me feel sad and disappointed that I can’t stop.” he recalls.

In 2008, Quan returned home after 6 years in a rather depressed mood, even though he still won a red degree at Russia’s oldest and most famous university.

However, with the desire to continue to study, 2 years later, he decided to “apply” for a PhD program in the US in cryptography but was not accepted by any school. In the 3rd year, he was loved by a French teacher, specializing in anti-virus research, and wanted to grant him a scholarship. However, the opportunity was turned off when he could not get funding.

At a time when he seemed to have lost all hope, fortunately he was approved by a school in the US, and then went smoothly.

Quit the PhD, quit working at Google

During his PhD study in the US, the Vietnamese guy was assigned the task of researching and building cryptographic systems, but he always found errors even in the basic protocols. In addition, the constant conflict with the instructor made him feel depressed.

“There was a period when he said that I should go find another instructor. Hearing that, I was extremely depressed, because my only wish at that time was to practice and do research with peace of mind.” Minh Quan recalls.

The nudge that made Quan decided to give up his PhD is that after 2 years in the US, he was admitted to Google thanks to his knowledge from the time of “plowing” algorithms in Russia. With the belief that he can continue to research even while working, he decided to “join” Google in the field of cryptographic attack.

However, working at Google “is not quite as dreamlike”. The field of cryptographic attack requires a lot of basic Math knowledge, while Quan is lacking due to too much focus on programming.

Fortunately, at Google, he works with the world’s leading cryptographic experts.

“I always tell myself that I have to try my best because opportunities only come once. Of course, when I started working with experts, I found myself not understanding cryptography at all. Therefore, I read and studied like crazy and after a while I was able to catch up and contribute to the project.”

The job at Google went smoothly for 5 years, but he began to find himself standing still for a long time. Not really understanding what he wanted, Quan began to vaguely realize that it was time to challenge himself in a different path.

So, after 5 years working, he decided to leave Google. Although he quit his job, Quan still did not stop learning but continued to learn and read more about cryptography whenever he had free time.

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Quan and his wife.

Realizing that finding bugs in popular protocols would have little chance of success as this is an area with so many experts, he decided to turn his attention to Ethereum v2 and advanced cryptography. Fortunately, his attacks were recognized. Ethereum then awarded the Vietnamese man $39,300 USD in bounty for these findings.

After the failures since high school and even when studying abroad, Minh Quan realized that competitions do not show everything, and the ability to apply in the wrong place will not bring good results. So when you find your way, you have to put all your efforts into it.

Quan also believes that the most valuable thing in failure is realizing your mistake so as not to make it a second time.

“I often look back at myself, compared to who I was years ago. I believe in a theory called Compound Theory, which means that after 1 year I will be 20% better; After 5 years, I will be 2.5 times better and 10 years will be 6 times. I believe that, if I work hard, I can rise and go further.”Quan shared.

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